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Ad firm’s facial-recognition marketing brings ‘Minority Report’ into present

Screen capture of Redpepper’s product Facedeals. Redpepper is a Nashville-based advertising and marketing agency.

Hailing the moment that Minority Report makes the transition from sci-fi to reality has become old hat for those tracking the evolution of advertising technology. But a new product invites comparisons to the ads that have eyes on you, as featured in that vision of the future.

Nashville-based ad agency Redpepper is promoting Facedeals, a product in development that would install cameras in the doorways of cafes, bars and other businesses, using facial recognition to offer customers deals personalized to their tastes.

The product would only recognize the faces of people who approved it via Facebook. It is not affiliated with Facebook, but works like other apps that must be approved by each user. Once users okay the service, it would have access to their photos on the social networking site, as well as their "Like history" – the things they have said they like on the site – to recognize them when they walk in and send coupons to their mobile phones for deals on products they might enjoy.

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Facedeals is designed to solve a problem common for check-in applications such as Foursquare: People download those apps, but do not always check in themselves.

"The consumer is more connected and more capable than ever before. But there's still the concept of, the simpler you can make it, the better it will be," said Redpepper founder and CEO Tim McMullen.

So far, the product is a prototype. While the agency tested it out with two local businesses, it only used a small pool of participants and has opened it up to wider testing at the consumer market level.

It has begun promoting Facedeals, however, in a bid to attract attention and the funding it needs to mass-produce the camera devices, to finalize the algorithms needed to make the app work seamlessly, and to pay lawyers to ensure there are no intellectual property concerns. (That funding can be hard to come by since Nashville is not a known tech hub. The attention it has garnered online has paved the way for conversations with potential investors, including one via Skype that Mr. McMullen said was set for Monday evening.)

As part of its initial testing, the agency did interviews with customers at local businesses. The feedback was mixed, Mr. McMullen admits. He acknowledges the privacy concerns such a marketing tool will raise.

"We hope it won't scare people," he said. "It's a matter of coming up with a really, really clear, simple explanation. It does not store data. ... It won't register you in the system unless you've approved the app and put in your pictures."

Facebook users are already accustomed to downloading third-party apps, such as games, that are not made by Facebook and require approving that outside developer's access to information such as their friend lists and other profile information. And customers have also grown accustomed to loyalty programs that gather data about their shopping habits, in exchange for in-store discounts or travel points.

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In a study released last month by Leger Marketing for SAS Canada, just under half of those surveyed – 46 per cent – said they would trade their personal information in return for more personalized offers from marketers.

But having their facial features tracked may be a different matter altogether for many consumers are already wary of the way that social media is gnawing away at their privacy. Privacy advocates have already sounded the alarm over Facebook's own facial recognition technology, which scans faces to recognize people in photos that are uploaded to the site.

And the technology may well face opposition if it ever seeks to be implemented in Canada. The very first decision ever put forth by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, in 2001, affirmed that video surveillance in public places – such as via a camera mounted on a business and pointed toward the street – is a collection of personal information, even if it is not recorded.

"There may be instances where it is appropriate for public places to be monitored for public safety reasons," Commissioner George Radwanski said at the time. "... There is no place in our society for unauthorized surveillance of public places by private sector organizations for commercial reasons."

Unless such a program used signs alerting patrons to the camera, and offered them a separate entrance to the business where they could avoid being filmed – even if they are not registered by the camera as having opted in – it would face certain opposition in Canada, said John Lawford, a lawyer with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa.

"This is just begging for a complaint, day one, if it comes to Canada," he said.

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But Mr. McMullen says facial recognition technology can be useful for consumers and marketers.

"One of the concepts we try to use in all our programs is, we call it intersecting with [consumers'] lives," he said. "Marketing is changing at the speed of technology."

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